(James) We awoke the following morning and were all loaded and ready by the comparatively early time of 8:20, fully expecting to hit the road for the 120km climb up to the Khunjerab Pass – the border between China and Pakistan, which at 4755 metres (15,600 feet) is the highest border crossing and paved road in the world. Pulling back out on to the KKH, our guide told us to go ahead so off we went only to be over taken a kilometre down the road to be told to turn round which we promptly did, just to be taken to a Chinese customs post just 500m from our hotel! We couldn’t quite work out why we couldn’t have just been told to go there in the first place but by now we were getting used to running round in circles! Just as when we had entered China, we were faced with dozens of self important officials whose jobs seemed to involve simply holding us in specific areas just so they could keep themselves occupied until it was time to go home – at least in Turkmenistan they spent their (and our) time filling in forms! We spent an hour at the customs shed having the engine and chassis numbers of our bikes checked against their paperwork (as if we’d have swapped our bikes for one of the 100cc Chinese bikes!?) and, bizarrely, having to get our bikes lined up abreast (perfectly abreast, we had to move several of them forwards or back a few inches to appease officials!) for photographs! Roberta, Donato’s pillion, then had to pose for propaganda photos next to a bike with some officials whilst holding some sort of document. (Alternatively, it could be for some sort of ‘2011 People’s Republic Customs Service Calendar’ and Roberta could find fame as Miss August 2011. Who knows?!)
Having satisfied the customs officials, it was over to immigration but our hopes of a quick getaway were dashed as the internet was down and without it the office closed! (who knew the Chinese system was so fragile?). Cue another hour of sitting around. Finally word spread that everything was back up and running and there was an almighty rush for the door. Order was restored inside though by some important (in their own mind) looking officers, one of whose job seemed to be to simply stand in the middle of the corridor at attention, moving only to tell us off for turning to talk to each other in the queue and making us stand in a straight line, facing the same way, and like him, at attention! (yes, really!). Just as on entry there was a little electronic box at the passport control asking us to comment on whether the service was: ‘friendly and efficient’, ‘satisfactory’, ‘checking took too much time’ and ‘poor service’. As before, the ‘e-survey’ wasn’t located at the end of the process but halfway through, next to a board with a list of customer service targets that officials hope to meet, one of which, we were amused to read assured us that customs processing should, for 95% of people, taken no more than 45 seconds per person. It didn’t mention what the other 5% should expect but after 90 minutes we had an idea why. Next, it was the army’s turn and we spent our time sweltering in the car park next to our bikes whilst a dozen soldiers, all of whom looked no more 11 years old and who seemed to be drowning in what I can only assume was the smallest sized uniform the Chinese army could muster, tried to look officious and asked us bizarre questions, clearly completely misunderstanding what it was exactly they were supposed to be doing. One, for example, had been nominated (or had nominated himself?!) to be in charge of the car park toilet so whilst we had been, to a degree, free to roam around the more ‘sensitive’ areas of the facility, we couldn’t go to what was a brick shed with a drop hole in the middle of the car park without him escorting us. For the boys he even came in to watch us, either for pleasure or to ensure that we didn’t plant some sort of high-tech eavesdropping device somewhere, after all who knows what kind of highly classified secrets that could possibly undermine the regime might be revealed by those officials deemed so irrelevant that they’re posted to the backwater that is Tash Kurgan!…..
Given that we were still 125km from the border which was at the top of the Khunjerab Pass we had been keen to get some miles under our belts as early as possible, so when, after an 8:20 departure were still sitting just 500 metres from our hotel as midday arrived it’s fair to say we were getting a little fed up with Chinese officialdom, so we were relieved when Musa told us we were now free to go and said good-bye (his role ended at this point). Of course, there was still one more pointless instruction – we were to wait and then follow a parked people-carrier to the border. As we waited, 50 metres down the road from the customs post the same soldiers and officials who’d been so zealously checking everybody’s luggage came out and started loading the car with contraband before heading off, and as predicted within 10km we’d completely lost sight of the vehicle!
As before, the Chinese section of the KKH was smooth tarmac with road steadily increasing in altitude throughout the day and although we had increasingly large mountains around us, it was clear that we were climbing onto a plateau. Despite having made adjustments to the bikes to compensate for the thinner air at higher altitude, some of the bikes were starting to feel a little sluggish. Ours on the whole were absolutely fine but were tending to stall at idle, nothing that some additional tweaking couldn’t solve. Fabian on the other hand was really starting to struggle and riding behind him I could see that even on relatively gentle inclines he was having to drop one and even two gears to keep going, and even then he was still losing speed. Clearly his bike wasn’t happy and our thoughts and conversation at break stops turned to likely causes and, of course the possibility of his bike dying before we got to our highest point – the Khunjerab Pass. True enough as the road turned towards the highest mountains and the incline of the road increased Fabian’s bike, like the temperature, began to drop. By the time we reached 4000 metres, our highest point thus far, Fabian was reduced, throttle fully open, to just 18 kph (about 12 mph) and we could run, laughing, alongside taking photos and video of him (which we did a lot!). By 4200m (13,079 feet) he was down to a mere 10 kph (6mph) and we were having to get off the bikes (never easy when you’re crying with laughter) every hundred metres or so to give him a running push up the hill, and by 4500m (14,763 feet) we were simply laughing too hard to be of any use to him or anyone else, and as Fabian would ride past (screaming) at full throttle at a glacial 5kph (2mph) it was all we could do to drop to our knees in hysterics and concentrate all our energy on breathing! Almost inevitably we reached an altitude where Fabian’s poor heavily laden bike simply refused to go another metre and we were at 4550m and were still another 200m short of the pass! We’d already tried a few running/pushing starts which at such altitude had absolutely knackered us so we opted to tow Fabian the rest of way up, and given that Stefano’s bike, at 1150cc, was the biggest it was decided that he should do the towing. Within a few minutes we had lashed together a few lengths of rope and some straps and, having agreed some ground rules for towing motorcycles up steep inclines, we gave Fabian what we hoped was his last uphill push start, and as hoped off he went. Even the Chinese soldiers at the final checkpoint couldn’t help but smile as we rode towards them, even lifting the barriers so they wouldn’t have to lose momentum. Less than 10 minutes later we approached the crest of the pass and rode underneath an unnecessarily large archway. Before us lay Pakistan but before descending we stopped and spent 20 minutes having lunch on the world’s highest border crossing and reminded the continentals in our group that in Pakistan we would be riding on the ‘right’ (as in correct) side of the road!